Hong Kong surgeon becomes first doctor in city to win top global award for paediatric work

HKU’s Professor Paul Tam Kwong-hang dreams of a breakthrough in his research on non-invasive surgery

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 7:01am

When paediatric surgeon Professor Paul Tam Kwong-hang operated on an infant many years ago, it never occurred to him that his own daughter would grow up to one day marry the same boy.

“When they first started dating, my daughter noticed a scar on his stomach,” Tam said.

“After a bit of digging, we discovered that I had in fact treated her husband-to-be when he was just a few days old.”

This was just one of many highlights in Tam’s body of work, which would eventually see him become the first doctor in the city to win a prestigious international award for his research on non-invasive surgery.

Tam, who is the chair of the University of Hong Kong’s paediatric surgery section, was presented the Denis Browne Gold Medal last month, awarded annually worldwide to a surgeon who has made major contributions to the field.

He is the first surgeon in Hong Kong and the fourth in Asia to be honoured with the medal since the prize was set up in 1968.

Tam said his dream was to be able to treat organs in the human body, such as the intestine, without having to make any incisions. His work focuses on minimally invasive microsurgeries, regenerative medicine for birth defects such a Hirschsprung’s disease, and genetics.

“I’ve been trying to turn back the biological clock – like rewinding a video – to find the root cause of random genetic mutations in infants and children,” Tam said.

“This is the only way I can hope to change treatment techniques so that they’re less strenuous and not as surgically invasive on our children.”

Tam is also the current provost and deputy vice-chancellor of HKU, as well as holder of the Li Shu-Pui Professor in Surgery title at the university’s Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, but he devotes much of his time to his research.

“Some 10 years ago, I would have told you that what I’m doing today is impossible,” Tam said.

“Now, my goals are within my reach – I cannot tell if there’s a glass wall in my way, or if the glass itself has already been shattered, but I will rip through with my hands as I reach forward. There’s no way of knowing until I head for it directly.”

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Tam graduated from HKU in 1976. “When I began my rotation on the paediatric floor after graduating, I knew I had found what I was destined to do,” Tam said.

Since returning to his home city from his position as Reader and Director of Paediatric Surgery at the University of Oxford in 1996, Tam has trained over 2,000 paediatric surgeons from mainland China.

He credits his success to those around him, saying: “Everyone who has been in my life deserves praise and recognition. From my parents and family, to my professors, colleagues, and even my patients.

“These are the people who motivate me to do good every day, and strive my hardest to give back to a society that has blessed me with so much.”